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Want Land? Move to Marquette -- It's Free

The real estate slump has housing prices falling virtually everywhere, but nowhere is land more affordable than in the tiny Kansas town of Marquette. In fact, they'll give you land for free.

Marquette is one of a number of small towns fighting a dwindling population by giving away real estate to anyone willing to move there. It's not a new idea, notes WalletPop writer Ann Brenoff. The concept dates back to the late 1800s when fledgling governments lured Easterners to the Wild West with the promise of free acreage.

The free land concept was revived in Marquette three years ago, when the town's population dipped to 475, said Allan Lindfors, Marquette's mayor and a vice president of the local bank. The declining population -- it was down about 20% from 593 people responding to the 2000 Census -- was threatening the town's ability to have a school, he said. So they decided to develop the town's Westridge section and give the land away to anyone willing to build a house there within 12 months of getting a land grant.

At first, the program seemed wildly successful, Lindfors said. The town had 3 or 4 applicants for each of the 75 parcels that were up for grabs. Within two years, 36 families moved in and enrollment in the local school jumped by 30 students. The town's population today: 650.

"For a little town to boost its population by 20 or 25% in a couple of years is phenomenal," said Lindfors. "We are very proud of that accomplishment."

Things haven't been so rosy lately, though. When the recession and housing slump hit, Marquette realized it couldn't even give its land away. They still have 39 parcels that they'd like to give out. But potential settlers are having trouble selling their homes in places like Los Angeles and Seattle and that's keeping them from moving to Marquette, Lindfors said.

"We get calls all the time from people saying that they still want to come," Lindfors said. "But they need to sell their homes, or they want to wait until their property value comes back."

So there's plenty of land for anyone who wants to fill out the Marquette land-grab application.

But there could be another reason that the give-away has slowed. In this case, free land might not be the best bargain. Why? You've got to build on the land and Lindfors estimates that will cost you another $80,000 to $100,000 -- even if you buy a manufactured home.

There's also a "special assessment" levied on the new land owners by the city, which is trying to recover the cost of putting utilities in the development area. The total cost of the assessment is about $5,438, but they're financing the deal with a long-term bond that allows you to pay just $475 per year.

Still, paying $85,000 to $105,000 for a home would still sound cheap if Marquette properties were going for big bucks. Alas. The housing slump has hit here too. Checking listing prices on Zillow, you see that there are a half-dozen homes for sale. Listing prices range from $40,000 for a two-story, 3-bedroom "fixer" in the heart of town; and a four-bedroom cottage for $79,900. The highest-priced house on the Zillow listing is a four-bedroom residence on half and acre, which is listed for $194,500, and hasn't sold in over three months.

For anyone interested, the mortgage on that "fixer," assuming you have a 20% downpayment, would work out to just about $162 per month.

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